Kendrick Lamar is not afraid to subvert your expectations.
For those not already aware, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth is a Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, whose lyrics blend poetic sensibilities with the harsh realities of racism, gang violence and intergenerational trauma. He is not your savior, as he says on a track titled “Savior” off his new record “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.” He is, in fact, a dynamic live performer who captivated Portland on Aug. 26 with an enthralling showcase at the packed Moda Center.
Lamar is meticulous. From his methodic dance moves, to the lovingly-crafted stage that filled the floor of the Moda Center, he knows exactly what he is doing. It is evident that he and his team put hundreds of hours of effort into this single show. Suspended lights dropped low at sharp angles to illuminate Lamar, who was seated at an upright piano. There was an enclosed cube located at the end of the stage that was raised above the crowd, and it would be an understatement to say there were pyrotechnics.
Clad in a black suit and a single bedazzled glove, Lamar was guided through his performance by the disembodied voice of Dame Helen Mirren, who addressed him as “Mr. Morale.” His backup dancers included women in red dresses, who swirled around him in a carefully choreographed pattern. When he would stop singing and extend his microphone towards the crowd, the power of thousands of fans echoed back every single lyric.
At one point, it was announced to the audience that Lamar needed to take a COVID-19 test, which came back positive. The rapper did not actually have COVID-19, of course. Instead the test was a commentary on the packed stadium full of fans. Lamar was then raised in the enclosed cube, where he performed “Alright.” It was all part of the production, done in an entertaining manner that straddled the line between performance art and typical concert productions.
In a more average concert moment, Lamar brought out his nephew and fellow rapper Baby Keem for the songs “Vent”, “Range Brothers,” and “Family Ties.” These songs were fueled by pure hype and adrenaline. Everyone was on their feet, shouting the iconic bars.
I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the show. I caught up with Yanna, another concertgoer, in the merch line after the concert. “Alright” was their favorite song, and they especially enjoyed the poetic nature of the show.
Zach, who was also in the merch line, told me that he “really liked when (Kendrick) played ‘LOVE’” which is his favorite song off of one of his favorite Lamar albums.
I also met two women, one of whom flew to Portland for a friend reunion and the concert. One of the friend’s, a woman named Tiana, said her favorite moment was getting to the barricade for the song “M.A.A.D City”, which she called “fucking awesome.” Abby, who made the trip from Texas to attend the concert with her friends, said “Money Trees” was her favorite moment. She gave the concert a “10/10” and said “You outdid yourself, Kendrick.”
From impeccable set craft to talented backup dancers, there was a lot to love. It was my favorite concert I have seen this year, and I have attended around thirty-five live music events in 2022. I was not expecting to see the best concert of my 2022 so far, but Lamar has grown as a performer and a musician over the last decade in ways not many other artists can compete with. He will always continue to be a master of subverting expectations in the most delightful and engaging sense of the term.